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What is stonewalling in romantic relationships?

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Stonewalling behavior is when one partner in a relationship shuts out the other emotionally. In some cases, it is an unintentional learned behavior performed by emotionally passive or avoidant people. Other times, it is used as a form of emotional abuse in which a person withdraws from the conversation to create distance.

Signs and Examples of Stonewalling

Often, stonewalling behavior is fairly obvious, but at other times, it can be more subtle and nefarious. Here are some signs of stonewalling:

  • Changing the subject when the conversation becomes uncomfortable
  • Ignoring your partner
  • Giving someone the silent treatment
  • Not answering questions
  • Running off while not saying anything during a disagreement
  • Ignoring the current issue by making accusations
  • Dismissive body language, such as rolling their eyes or avoiding eye contact
  • Passive-aggressive behavior such as stalling

Two Types of Stonewalling

Stonewalling behaviors can show up in a couple of different ways in relationships. These include:

Unintentional stonewalling. Stonewalling may be a maladaptive coping mechanism adapted by the stonewalling partner as a way to avoid conflict or discomfort. They may fear negative reactions, due to childhood trauma.

Intentional stonewalling. This type of stonewalling abuse is often used as a manipulation to gain the upper hand in a relationship or to punish their partner. To completely shut out another person can create strong feelings of physiological arousal and pain.

Reasons a Person May Unintentionally or Intentionally Stonewall Their Partner

  • They are prone to avoid conflict
  • Believe they can't emotionally handle a certain topic
  • They are trying to establish themselves as a neutral party
  • Fear a partner's reaction
  • Feeling flooded with hopelessness about resolving a conflict
  • As a way to see their partner as unreasonable
  • To get their own way
  • To bring about the end of the relationship
  • Underlying belief that their partner does not want a resolution to a conflict

What does it feel like to be stonewalled?

The stonewalling partner may be using this tactic with intentional effort, or simply as a result of an unrecognized pattern of avoidant behavior. However, whether intentional stonewalling is done or not,  this behavior may leave your partner feeling frustrated, infuriated, hurt, confused, or a combination of all of these emotions.

Research has shown that the partner being stonewalled was more likely to experience cardiovascular symptoms like high blood pressure and increased heart rate, as well as tension headaches.

The partner doing the stonewalling was shown to have an increased risk for general muscle aches and pains, as well as backaches and neck stiffness in particular.

How Stonewalling Impacts Relationships

Stonewalling is a behavior that impacts your ability to communicate effectively in a relationship. Through this lack of communication, there may be other lasting effects from this behavior that can lead to long-term problems.

Stonewalling Can Make One Partner Feel Lonely

Stonewalling creates emotional distance between partners. The stonewalled partner often feels alone and hopeless when the stonewalling partner shuts them out. Stonewalling can be considered a form of gaslighting, and cause lowered self-worth and other mental health issues. In some cases, feeling cut off and lonely may lead to the stonewalled partner cheating on their partner or spouse, either emotionally or physically.

Your Partner Shuts Down

When one partner shuts down, conflict resolution isn't possible. If one partner is giving the silent treatment at any hint of conflict, relationship satisfaction may decrease for both partners. This can lead to resentment, frustration, and other long-standing negative emotions.

Stonewalling Can Lead to Unresolved Issues

Healthy relationships depend on good communication skills. Studies show that when one partner avoids conflict through stonewalling behaviors, even close relationships can break down and become consumed by underlying and unresolved issues. Unresolved conflict remains under the surface and will continue to be revisited again and again, or else it will cause resentment in one or both partners.

As a matter of fact, a study found that stonewalling was a major predictor of divorce in many couples. Left unaddressed, stonewalling can lead to bigger problems than whatever the person is refusing to address at the time.

What can we learn from stonewalling?

Stonewalling occurs when a partner in a relationship is either intentionally abusive, or has a learned defense mechanism that is likely a result of unresolved childhood trauma or a continuous cycle of conflict. By learning to identify signs of stonewalling, you can either seek help through couples therapy or, in cases of intentional stonewalling, make a move toward leaving a relationship.

If your partner refuses to attend therapy, you may be able to make strides in attending individual therapy. With the help of your therapist, you may decide later what further actions to take when it comes to your relationship.

What's the antidote to stonewalling?

As with most issues in a relationship, dealing with unintentional stonewalling should be done together. Couples counseling in the form of in-person or online therapy can help partners learn to talk together about issues in their relationship, even if one is reluctant to do so.

Dealing with feelings can be difficult for some people, but if you start the conversation in a safe space, with a psychologist experienced in dealing with relationships, you can learn to re-engage with your partner and honor your own needs and feelings.

See a Relationship Therapist

A mental health professional like a couples therapy practitioner or licensed marriage counselor can help recognize stonewalling in a relationship, as well as any physiological and affective predictors of this behavior. People stonewall often as a self-soothing behavior or as a time out from an emotional state. However, this behavior can cause negative physiological arousal and emotional problems that can lead to relationship challenges.

If stonewalling has led to feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration in your relationship, therapy with a licensed couples therapist in Austin can help your marriage work more effectively through talk, conflict resolution, and healthy coping mechanisms.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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